Writing – Knowing when to run, walk or jog

I want to look at writing as a way to achieve contentment (happiness is fleeting, but contentment is solid) and at how the writing process changes over time. I hope this post makes you want to write a little and that it helps you work out how to pace your writing process so that it works for you.

I’ll start by admitting that I haven’t written a blog post in a while. I could say it’s because I’ve been busy, but I have approximately 89 hours a week where I’m not asleep or in work, so I could have written several competent blog posts in that time. I could say it was because I was working on another project—which I was (two actually), but I haven’t been working on either of these projects flat out and I definitely could have found the time to work on a blog post or two. I could say it’s because I didn’t have any blog post ideas, but that’s not true either, as I have a few solid ideas kicking about inside my head. The truth is: I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump in these last two months and the only positive is that I have been reading a lot.

I’ve been in a writing slump because I’ve been in an emotional slump (having a few issues with anxiety). And during this anxious flurry of breathlessness, heart palpitations, mild depression and self-doubt, I forgot something that could have helped me, something that I have learned and re-learned over and over again in the last ten years: writing can be therapy. Writing can make me content again; it can calm everything down and stop the world from spinning quite so quickly when I need it to, or it can speed it up again when I want to feel alive.

I know that it’s not uncommon to talk about the benefits of writing, and I’ve read many articles about the positive benefits writing can have on a person’s health. The BBC, Huff Post and even Life Hack bang on about how writing can help you sleep better, help you process emotionally stressful events in your life—that writing can even help your physical wounds heal better (you have the Huffing Post to thank for that little nugget!). Now there is a lot of truth behind the assertions in these articles, but they are delivered in a cheap, click-bait style that I doubt would ever encourage anyone to write, or encourage writers to write more than they currently do.

 

Sprinting – Giving Yourself Drive and Purpose

In the past, I haven’t needed an article to remind me that writing makes me feel better; I’ve just written and felt content. Simple. For years, I’ve been making little writing quotas for myself, week by week, telling myself that if I get ‘X many words written this week’ then I’ll be happy, or that ‘if I get X many pages edited and redrafted, I’ll know that I’m really serious about writing’. I would set myself challenges, each with a clear goal, and I’d tell myself that I couldn’t relax until I achieved what I set out to achieve. I once even set myself a four-day writing challenge: I had to write 20,000 words in four days—5,000 each day—and I wasn’t allowed to take a single break each day until I made my word quota. I even took time off work in order to carry out this challenge.

I was able to write 20,000 words in four days and I wrote some of my best material in that time. I used to thrive in these moments of absolute obsession. I’m quite an obsessive person, and I used to love nothing more than writing all day, every day, struggling, yet managing, to meet my own personal writing targets. This perhaps sounds stressful, and it was, but it was also wonderful. It gave me purpose and reminded me that I wanted to be a writer and that I could be a writer if I kept trying hard enough. I got the same sort of smug, self-satisfaction I get when I run a lot and start to feel my efforts changing me, making me fitter and leaner and happier. It’s this sense of control that I enjoy about writing—and it was this sense of dramatic dedication that I fed off in the past. If you thrive on purpose and you’re always throwing yourself into projects, then I can think of nothing better than writing to scratch that itch of yours.

 

Walking – Know When to Stop Writing and Take a Break

But this process of personal pressure, of making tougher and tougher deadlines for myself, began to make me anxious. I only realised this recently, but I’ve turned into a rather anxious adult. I was a fairly relaxed teenager and a primary school teacher once said that if I were any more laid back I’d be horizontal. So this anxiety has only really come out of the woodwork in the last year or two, and it’s something I’m dealing with by cutting out my 12 cups of coffee per day and by exercising more. And the other way of dealing with it is by addressing my writing habits. While my previous habit had been to binge write every day, every waking, non-working moment for two weeks straight. I decided to pace myself, so I cut myself a lot of slack and it sometimes made me feel better. Although sometimes I’m okay and I still cut myself slack, and I realise that I’ve only done bits and bobs for months, and it’s made me miserable. I went from sprinting to walking and the lack of drive left me feeling flat and directionless. Perhaps walking isn’t right for me.

 

Jogging – The Best of Both Worlds

So I decided that I perhaps needed a less extreme approach; that I had to combine the stressful, productive process with the relaxed, unproductive process. So I tried an experiment two weeks ago where I had to write at least one thousand words each day for seven days. I’m big enough and ugly enough that one thousand words is a walk in the park. It’s easy. And I reasoned that it’d only take me an hour or two each night—which means I’ll always be able to meet my targets. I quickly found my flow again and I was able to write my daily quota with ease. At the end of the week I had a little over seven thousand words and I felt less anxious and less flat than I had in quite a while. And I worked out that if I stuck to this pattern for a year I’d have 365,000 words, which is almost 40,000 words longer than George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Obviously, some time needs to be factored in for editing and for other writerly activities, but one thousand words each day just isn’t that time consuming, so there is plenty of time for the other stuff around that.

I find that this approach satisfies the obsessive in me that wants to write an entire novel in a month and it is gentle on the anxious part of my nature that panics when I put too much pressure on myself. I’m starting an MA in creative writing in September and I intend to write 1000 words every day of the week. If some other commitment gets in the way, I have to make up the word limit by the end of the week. I’m seeing this as a big challenge, but also as the starting point of a happier, more productive time for me as a writer. I’m no longer sprinting from point to point and taking breaks to hold my stitch. I’m no longer squandering whole months writing little to nothing at all. It’s time to jog.

 

Tell Me Your Writing Process

If you’re a writer and you think you’ve figured out a great writing process, please get in touch. I’d love to hear about your writing and how you fit it around your working life. I’d like to know when you’re at your most productive and if you set yourself targets. I’d like to know if you write more in the morning or in the evening, and if you have anyone you regularly bounce ideas off. Every writer has their own process, and I’m open to suggestions.

Have your say. Leave a comment.
  1. Michael Graham says:

    Great post. It has inspired me to set ‘jogging’ speed targets to my musical journey.

    Reply
    • Peter McCune says:

      Thanks Michael, that’s brilliant. I thought it would apply to music as it’s all about free time and targets. Glad you found some use for my drivel.

      Reply

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